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Eyes of the Swordfish

ISSUE:  Winter 1990
The only way you know it’s noon in these three blocks of
houses the color of salt-glazed clays is when Our Lady of
Pompeii spews out its host of pigtails and pleated tartan
skirts. Two or three sun-faded shutters will push open
then—maids instructed to find out whether certain
daughters are shouting words they’re forbidden to whisper
at home. Though the games are confined to a street
blocked off by police barricades, a kickball will sometimes
carom off the church into the next street. Without leaving
his milk-crate perch the Korean florist swings one leg into
the gutter to halt the ball. Only once has he failed to buff it
on his apron before returning it to the nun whose umpire’s
whistle is her sole piece of earthly authority. On the rare
occasion that a girl is sent to the barricade, he invariably
turns back to select some small thing for her—a blue tulip,
a mottled carnation—which she carries back aloft to the
hoots and giggles of her peers. The florist has no daughters
himself, and the fishmonger, against whose window-grate
the ball sometimes bounces, doesn’t trust a man who
presents flowers to little girls whose language he barely
speaks. Kneeling in the display bin full of fresh ice, he
wrestles a seven-foot swordfish into place, planting its bill
into the dough-soft wood of the window molding. By
Friday evening only fins and the pronged head will
remain—-just now it’s perfect except that each eye has
begun to cloud over. The fishmonger doesn’t trust little
girls either, their giggles that evolve into throaty laughter
as they discover all the other things their bodies can do.
He has a daughter who’s practicing being a woman three
cities upriver, whose visits home are only to mollify his
anger over her latest credit troubles. His wife is no help—
last weekend she shared the courtyard’s white iron loveseat
with the girl, getting her advice on clothes and facials,
while he bent over the kitchen sink, trying to rid his hands
of their squid-smell. He had to remind himself that it was
water, not laughter, pouring out of the faucet. But now he
brushes the ice from his knees, peering up at a flat cloud
that looks as though it might catch on the cross-tipped
steeple and tear, In five minutes all the little soprano
shouts will subside through the church school’s stone
passageway, back to the enforced silence of multiplication
tables, the teachings of the desert fathers. Turning to
uncrate another hundredweight of squid, he wonders how
fast a swordfish can go underwater—for this one, it wasn’t
fast or deep enough.


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